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Bluegrass World Loses Legend Vassar Clements

Fiddle virtuoso Vassar Clements, described by critics as the "Miles Davis of bluegrass" died August 16 at the age of 77, following a battle with lung cancer. The highly regarded musician played on more than 2,000 albums.

Vassar Clements was just seven years old when he first picked up a fiddle. He "hit the big time" at 14, when he began playing with Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. Clements became a full-time member of the group in 1949, but never limited himself to playing bluegrass music.

Dan Hayes, Executive Director of the International Bluegrass Music Association, says Vassar Clements was one of the most inventive, and popular fiddlers in American music.

"We all talk about wanting to expand musical boundaries," he said. "We, unfortunately, many times end up getting involved in our insular communities, and that's as far as we go. We tend to protect territories and that kind of thing. Vassar didn't do that. He obviously played with everyone from Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe to The Byrds and the Grateful Dead, and lots and lots of folks in between. He kept exploring."

One such exploration led Vassar Clements to "Old And In the Way," a "one-shot" band whose legacy has lasted much longer than the actual group. Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia formed the group in 1973 as a way to return to his bluegrass roots. Playing alongside Jerry was Peter Rowan, David Grisman and Vassar Clements.

It's estimated that Vassar Clements and his fiddle appear on more than 2,000 album cuts. And, says Dan Hayes, fans have no problem picking out the distinctive sound of Vassar's fiddle.

"There was a kind of a crispness to it, and flow to him that when you heard Vassar playing, you knew that it was Vassar," he said. "He just had a sound that was unique to him and it's signatured all over the place."

One of Vassar's most famous cuts is "Lonesome Fiddle Blues" on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's classic album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken.

"The work on the Will the Circle Be Unbroken album opened a lot of doors for new fans to come to the music, but it also inspired a whole new generation of artists and fiddle players," said Dan Hayes. "Vassar, in my opinion, probably didn't get his just recognition from various organizations out there that are responsible for recognizing people. We all should have done more, but I hope that he and his family knew that he was recognized and appreciated on a more personal level."

"I think he'll be remembered as one of the most important fiddle players of the 20th century, and certainly even into the 21st century," he continued. "He is a pioneer of the music. He helped define bluegrass music, lay the cornerstone, laying the foundation. He was there. Certainly we recognize Bill Monroe as the father of bluegrass music, but bluegrass is ensemble music, and it takes different players to come together to actually make it the best it can be. And, Vassar was one of those people who contributed to that foundation."

In addition to playing on thousands of songs for other artists, Vassar Clements recorded more than two dozen albums of his own, and appeared in Robert Altman's 1975 film Nashville. The 2004 Grammy Award for best country instrumental performance went to a version of "Earl's Breakdown," by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, featuring Vassar Clements, Earl Scruggs and Jerry Douglas.